Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The cloud that shadows Israel's 60th

Despite its miraculous progress over six decades, the country is still threatened by its neighbours

By Gil Troy
Montreal Gazette, May 07, 2008

At sundown tonight, Israel marks its 60th anniversary, celebrating impressive national achievements. In 1948, the fragile, embattled country was a harsh place to live, as imperiled as a blade of grass planted in a desert surrounded by menacing predators. Six decades later, the country is a stable, thriving democracy with seven million citizens.

No longer a flimsy seedling, Israel is like a microchip, small, sophisticated - and complicated - generating great power, attracting much attention.
Yet, despite this country's miraculous progress in six decades, the 10th anniversary of Israel 's 50th anniversary is sobering. Looking at 2008 from 1998, not 1948, highlights the devastating impact of the Oslo peace process's failure.

Today, it is easy to forget David Ben-Gurion's daring in urging Israel 's independence. The British planned to relinquish control of Palestine on May 14, 1948. In November, 1947, the United Nations had voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab territory - both groups called themselves "Palestinians." Ben-Gurion, the gruff, charismatic leader of the Yishuv, the Jewish state's preliminary government, endorsed the compromise. That too, took courage because the plan offered hard-to-defend boundaries and internationalized Jerusalem .

Arab leaders rejected the UN decision. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem called for jihad. From November 1947 through May 1948, local Arabs slaughtered 1,256 Jewish men, women and children with truck bombs and ambushes, shootings and stabbings.

With Jerusalem besieged, and five surrounding Arab armies ready to pounce, many proposed postponing independence. Harry Truman's secretary of defence, the legendary George Marshall, warned Ben-Gurion's emissary "as a military man," that the situation was "grave."

Ben-Gurion, however, felt the Jews had waited long enough. They had lost sovereignty 1,900 years earlier, when the Romans razed Jerusalem , and exiled many - although some Jewish communities remained in their homeland. They had just endured the mass murder of 6 million. And the Zionist movement in Palestine had been building toward this moment, settlement by settlement, institution by institution, since the 1880s.
At 4 p.m. on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion read Israel 's Declaration of Independence. This remarkable document, mixing civic and ethnic nationalism, rooted in history stretching back to the Bible, envisioned peace with all the country's neighbours.

Six thousand Jews died in Israel 's War for Independence , approximately one per cent of the population. After fierce fighting, the borders became more defensible. Jews controlled Jewish Western Jerusalem.

Alas, crack Jordanian troops captured and destroyed the old city's Jewish Quarter, the Jewish people's emotional epicentre.

Ben-Gurion's gamble paid off - although what he "won" was not much of a bargain. The new country, Israel , was small, arid, with minimal economic infrastructure, major enemies and massive waves of immigrants coming to resettle, both the survivors of the Holocaust and, over the next 10 years, nearly one million Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands. These were days of food rationing, rough clothes, hard work, tempered by the exhilaration of returning to history, controlling their destiny and fulfilling a national mission.

Sixty years later, those who survived walk around Israel amazed. The goodies of modern Western prosperity and freedom abound, for better and worse: cars and traffic, factories and pollution, a flood of consumer goods and waves of individualistic self-indulgence. Headlines emphasize the high-tech inventions, the medical advances, the cutting-edge research. Less appreciated are record-level per-capita rates of book publishing and reading, charitable giving and volunteering, spiritual seeking and study.

Perhaps most surprising to outsiders - and most impressive given the country's tragic history - is an ingrained peace ethos. So many defining Israeli songs yearn for peace - Shir LaShalom, a song of peace, Nolatedi LeShalom, I was born for peace, Salaam Aleikum, peace be upon you - Arabic title, Hebrew lyrics, universal hope. Cynics might scoff, but the world has seen the difference between civilizations craving peace, and cultures celebrating vilification and violence.

And that explains the trauma of the 10th anniversary of the 50th. In 1998, the Oslo Accords fed Israelis' hope for peace with their Palestinian neighbours. As it did with the Sinai in 1979, Israel had made the historically unprecedented step of offering to leave contested territory seized legitimately in a border dispute. Israel imported Yasser Arafat from Tunis , offering his forces weapons and training. Alas, rather than being another Nelson Mandela, Arafat remained a terrorist. The renewed Palestinian terror campaign beginning in 2000 shattered Israelis' hope for normalcy.
That Israel's self-defence earned such worldwide opprobrium, despite the Oslo concessions, demoralized Israelis.

Israel has a strong democratic culture of self-criticism that does not exist in the Arab world. Most Israelis, from across the political spectrum, hold two contradictory positions. They lambaste their own leaders for various missteps. Still, most believe Israel 's mistakes pale amid this great betrayal when Palestinians turned from negotiations toward terror - and attracted world support rather than being urged back to negotiate.

As a result, clouds shadow tonight's celebrations. Independence Day festivities immediately follow the Day of Mourning for Fallen Soldiers and Terror Victims. This year particularly, as Israelis swing abruptly from lamentation to exhilaration, they will delight in the miracles they have created since 1948. They will mourn their lost loved ones and dashed hopes. But they will sing their collective songs of peace, knowing that they - and their neighbours - were born for peace, that peace must come upon them, in Arabic and Hebrew, with both sides willing to be self-critical, make critical compromises, and seek a solution that will make the 10th anniversary of the 60th anniversary a moment of absolute joy.

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